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"I can't come to the telephone right now," she said. "Please leave your message alter the beep."
Norman didn't leave any messages. what was he going to say?
He didn't know if she was hurt, shopping, spending the weekend with Pierce, or just not answering her phone as part of this elaborate joke. He piled the kids into the car and went off to do the food shopping. Saturday in the supermarket, with its oppressive crowds and myriad distractions, is not a place where one thinks about anything other than surviving the process of collecting food choices and conducting them safely through a check-out line. The kids didn't particularly want to be there, and he had to watch them every moment to make sure they didn't wander away to be kidnapped or do something to embarrass him.
Norman managed to capture Justin's interest momentarily over a refrigerated display of upmarket cheese.
"Here's one." Justin offered him a chunk of white American cheese in plastic wrap.
"That's not what I need." Norman laid aside a wrapped wedge of sharp cheddar that was a little too large and took a smaller one from under it.
"It's cheese," said Justin.
"You couldn't prove it by me." Norman moved along the cold box and began to pick through the provolone.
"The label says it's American," said Justin.
"I have doubts about its loyalty," said Norman.
Justin laughed, and Norman realized the boy was the best audience he'd ever had.
The crowds and the traffic were so bad that it took nearly the rest of the day to get the shopping done. It was the late in the afternoon when they got back to the house. He sent the kids off to amuse themselves while he tried to call Jacqueline's apartment. He got her machine again, so he gave up and started making macaroni and cheese for dinner. Most people think you just throw a lot of cooked macaroni into a dish with some processed cheese food, but that wasn't the kind of macaroni and cheese Norman wanted for his kids that weekend.
He put a layer of macaroni into the dish, then a layer of freshly grated cheddar cheese. Then he put in another layer of macaroni, followed by a layer of freshly grated provolone cheese. Then he put several dots of butter into the dish. His back still hurt, so he sat down at the kitchen table before starting the next layer of macaroni. He stared at the wall of the kitchen and wondered if he wasn't poisoning the kids with all this cheese and butter. It hardly mattered. He couldn't help himself. They loved this stuff. It felt so good to give it to them.
His mind wandered back to Jacqueline. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he was of the joke theory. None of it had really happened. The paralysis thing was a problem, and he had to see a doctor as soon as he could, but otherwise, the joke was the best explanation. He thought about going to the other room where he had his little telephone book and looking up the number of his doctor, but then he remembered it was the weekend. He stood up from the table and walked over to the counter to start another layer of macaroni in the casserole dish. He repeated the cheese grating, the macaroni, the dots of butter.
When he finally had all the layers in place, he poured a little bit of milk into the dish and topped it with bread crumbs. As he slid the dish into the oven, he noticed it was dark out.
He went to the telephone and called Pierce's office. But he got the voice mail, and he realized that Pierce's apparently limitless dedication to his job did not extend to weekends. He didn't try Jacqueline's house again. He knew he would just get her machine.
He sat down with the kids in the dining room shortly after he took the casserole out of the oven. It was late, and Gwen wasn't home yet, but the kids hardly seemed to notice her absence. Norman ate macaroni and cheese, traded squid jokes with his son, and listened intently to his daughter's description of various acquaintances' transgressions of social protocol at school. It occurred to him, as she described how alliances and relationships shifted in response to things like too much enthusiasm in conversation or wearing white socks on Tuesday, that the social order at her school was at least as rigid as that of eighth-century Byzantium. He wondered if her school weren't in need of re-engineering. He imagined Pierce reorganizing the place, waving his blank piece of paper, suspending students, and laying off teachers.
Gwen came in the door after they'd finished the casserole and their salad. She had already had dinner with her staff, but she sat down to ice cream with Norman and the kids. She seemed energized from spending the day at the office. She took her turn joking and laughing with the kids, and as the four of them sat at the table eating ice cream, Norman had that funny feeling that he often had with his kids, wishing for their bedtime at the same time he hoped the moment would last forever.
Finally, it was time to send them to their rooms, and he and Gwen were alone at the dining room table.
"Good meeting, huh?" said Norman.
Gwen sipped from her coffee cup. "It was fantastic, Norman. Fantastic." She took another sip. "Fantastic."
Norman got the impression her meeting had gone well.
They went into Justin's bedroom, and Gwen tucked him in while Norman watched. Then they did the same for Lisa, doing her second because she was older and got to stay up a few minutes later.
Norman switched off the light, and as he and Gwen stepped into the hall, she grabbed Norman's hand. She smiled at him as they walked down the hallway. Norman looked at her and tried to see what it was in her appearance that made her look so competent and driven. It wasn't anything he could put his finger on. He wondered what it was like to be one of her subordinates. Then he wondered if he didn't already know.
She turned to him as they went into the bedroom and motioned for him to shut the door.
Norman closed the door and walked over and wrapped his arms around her. They kissed and rubbed themselves against each other, then slowly broke away. They each started to undress.
"What happened last night?" Gwen kicked off her shoes.
Norman couldn't tell her he was the butt of a very elaborate joke. "After my meeting with Pierce and Jacqueline," he said, "I went back to my office to get caught up on a couple of things, and I fell asleep."
It was the kind of explanation Gwen could relate to, even if it was hard to believe of Norman.
"I've been so tired lately," he said. "It's the acquisition."
"I'll bet," said Gwen.
Norman was confident she bought it, and he found himself unaccountably disappointed. "How did your presentation go?"
She smiled broadly. "Norman, it was fantastic. Standing 0."
Norman wondered what it was like to give a speech for which everyone in your company gets to their feet to applaud. It must make you feel needed.
"They loved it." Gwen threw off her blazer and unbuttoned her blouse. "I talked with Rod afterward, and he asked me to have lunch with him in the Sky Room next week."
Rod was the CEO at Gwen's company, and the Sky Room was the company's VIP dining room. Norman knew something big was in store for her.
She threw her blouse on the bed and unbuttoned her skirt where it fastened at the hip, then stepped out of it before throwing it on the bed along with the blouse. She stood before him in black bra and panties, dark stockings fastened to a garter belt around her hips.
"Do you want to take a shower with me?" he said.
Norman didn't think she particularly needed washing, but in the special code they had created over twelve years of marriage, an invitation to a shower implied an entire ritual. They would shower together, soaping each other gently and then taking turns under the shower head to rinse off. Then they would dry off and climb in between the sheets and make love. It was their way of marking major achievements, and it was part of the ceremony that the achiever was the one invited.
The shower went as he had imagined, and almost as soon as he climbed into bed, her firm, satiny body was all over him. His back was still a little sore, but desire surged through his groin. He stroked her breast, kissed her neck, nibbled her shoulder, and they moved quickly into energetic sex without making a sound. Gwen had always worried about the children hearing, and the two of them had the habit of utterly silent lovemaking. As always, he lost himself in her, and he was barely aware of her arching her back under him as he exploded in climax. He kissed her neck just behind her ear and then rolled off her. He reached over and stroked her shoulder before becoming comatose.
Norman woke up in the dark to an utterly silent house. He didn't know what had awakened him, but he realized he needed to use the bathroom. He pushed himself out of bed and padded into the master bathroom. He closed the door and turned on the light, then had to stand without moving for what seemed like a half hour until his eyes could tolerate the light. He finally opened them and looked at himself in the mirror.
He was naked, and there were three red marks on his left shoulder. He leaned closer into the mirror, wondering what they were. Then he realized they were bruises in the shape of teeth marks. Gwen had bitten him during their lovemaking. She hadn't broken the skin, but the welts made it look like she had tried. He ran his hand over the marks gently, and they responded with a sensation of soreness.
Why had she bitten him like that? Was she trying to make him hump faster or something? It occurred to him that the teeth marks were symbolic of their relationship. He loved her, but sometimes he wished she didn't have to always encourage him to hump faster.
After he'd finished in the bathroom and returned to bed, Norman rolled on to his side facing away from her, and thought about his bites. Sexual activity apparently had anesthetic properties. If he hadn't been orgasmic when Gwen bit him, he'd probably have noticed she was doing it. He imagined Gwen biting him under other circumstances-watching television, say, or during a conversation. But he could not imagine himself sitting still for it. In the midst of sexual climax, he supposed he could tolerate just about anything. He wondered if everybody was like that, or if it was just him. But he didn't think about it much before he fell asleep again.
Norman often got to work late on Mondays, and he began his next work week by arriving at the office at nine-thirty. Cheryl and Louise were both at their desks already. Their hair was more evenly matched than it had been the previous week. Norman hoped he could look forward to a little less tension. when he walked into the office, he saw both women crying. He didn't want to interfere with whatever was going on, so he didn't say anything to either of them. He walked between their desks through the reception area and went straight to Jacqueline's office to get everything cleared up about the joke she and Pierce had played on him.
But there was nobody in Jacqueline's office, and as Norman stood in front of her empty desk, he heard snuffling behind him. He turned and found Cheryl in the doorway.
"She's not here, Norman." Cheryl sniffed and dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. "Her neighbor called about a half hour ago. They found her dead in her apartment on Sunday."
The office around him went out of focus for a moment, but snapped back to clarity when Cheryl began to speak again.
"They think it was an arterial aneurysm." Cheryl stopped and sobbed for a moment, then continued, her speech catching on the rhythm of her crying. "They said there would probably be an autopsy tomorrow. Oh, God. I can't believe it."
Norman made responsive noises to Cheryl, hoping he was saying things that were appropriate. But his voice did this on autopilot while he tried to grapple inwardly with a strange feeling that blossomed in the pit of his stomach and welled upward. When the feeling reached his collar, it caught in the vicinity of his necktie, which suddenly became too tight. He could hardly breathe. He managed to walk past Cheryl out of Jacqueline's office and then through the reception area, where Louise was crying into a telephone receiver.
He stopped himself between the two desks in the reception area, feeling like he was in a fog. He managed to catch a bit of breath and said deliberately, "The department's closed for the day. Go home."
Then he went into his own office and shut the door behind him.
He sat down behind his desk and leaned over the blotter, supporting himself with his hands on either side of it, and breathed deeply. He heard Cheryl and Louise on the other side of his office door closing and locking their desks. He might have been one of the last people to see Jacqueline alive. He focused on his breathing, and it calmed him somewhat.
Pierce might know something about all this. Assuming Jacqueline's death was somehow connected with the meeting in his office, he might even be involved. Can you kill somebody in a way that simulates an arterial aneurysm? Norman didn't even know what an arterial aneurysm was.
He tried to recall the details of the meeting in Pierce's office. But the memory had taken on a dreamlike quality, and the only impression he could summon was a picture of himself sitting in the chair and doing nothing while Jacqueline moaned. She had been his subordinate. He was responsible for her. Maybe if he'd tried harder, he would have been able to get himself out of the chair and protect her. But protect her from what? He didn't even know what had happened to her.
Norman knew he had to talk with Pierce about this. He grabbed the telephone and punched in Pierce's number. He got the voice mail, then he remembered it was still morning, and Pierce's schedule did not include any daylight office hours. He hung up the telephone, and frustration caught him like a marionetteer taking up his strings. It made him jump out of his chair and kick over the wastebasket beside his desk. There was nothing in it to spill, but it scuffed his shoe, which made him angry. He beat his desk with the heel of his hand once, twice, three times. He struck it again and again and lost track of how many times he did it. He was just conscious of the gratifying noise it created as the blows reverberated through the desk's structure. His hand was beginning to get sore when, between blows, he heard a knock at his door.
"Norman?" said a voice.
Norman stopped beating the desk. "Yes?"
The door opened, and Tim, the department benefits specialist, stepped diffidently into the threshold. "Are you all right?"
Norman looked at his hand. An ugly red welt was spreading across the lower palm. It would probably turn purple shortly. "I'm fine."
"Everybody's gone," said Tim. "Where are they? What's going on?"
Wasn't it just typical that everybody would leave without telling Tim anything? He was just not the kind of person the rest of the staff sought out.
"I closed the office," said Norman. "You can go home."
"Is it a holiday or something?"
Norman realized Tim didn't even know about Jacqueline yet. It was Norman's responsibility to tell him. "Jacqueline died."
It seemed a strange question to ask.
"No," said Norman. "They found her at her apartment on Sunday."
Tim laughed nervously. "Then what was she doing out in the parking lot this morning?"
Norman's hand was too sore for him to comprehend Tim's question.
"I saw her. I had to come to work early this morning to work on the bonuses for the Genographics team. Just before dawn. I saw her walking across the parking lot toward the west."
"Jacqueline died, apparently over the weekend," said Norman. "You must have seen somebody else."
"I guess so," said Tim, no longer confident of his story. "Maybe that's why she didn't answer when I called to her."
Norman had no choice but to stay late at the office until he could talk to Pierce. He had to find out what had happened and if Pierce had any connection with it. He never really got any work done for the rest of the day. He reset the voice mail for the whole department soit answered before the phones could ring. Then he stared out his window at the parking lot. He watched cars drive in. He watched cars drive away. He watched people get in and out of cars, come in the building, leave the building. He had never watched this before, and he hadn't realized the company parking lot was this active during the day. Then it occurred to him that he might have the opportunity to watch Pierce arrive. It would be interesting to see what kind of car he drove.
At five o'clock, he watched the parking lot empty itself. The arc lights came on when the sky was still orange, and the parking lot continued to look as if it were in daylight after the rest of the sky had gone quite dark. when the crush of departing employees was over, there were a dozen cars left besides Norman's. His car sat alone in one of the nearer rows, while the rest clustered in the least desirable corner of the lot. Norman assumed they belonged to the second-shift security and cleaning people.
He watched the lot for a long time, but he saw no cars enter. He decided he would just have to wait until Pierce got here, no matter how long it took. He looked at his watch at quarter to six. Except for the artificial illumination, it was completely dark out. His telephone rang. As he reached for it, he remembered setting it to answer without ringing.
"Human Resources," said Norman.
"Norman," said Pierce, "I gather you want to see me."
Norman couldn't ask him how he had overridden the voice mail command without admitting he had programmed the system to block calls. He wondered briefly how Pierce knew he wanted to talk to him, but he didn't have time to think about it.
"Are you in your office?" said Norman.
"Yes," said Pierce, "but I'm getting ready to leave for a meeting."
"I have to talk with you," said Norman. "I'll be right up."
"Don't bother," said Pierce. "I'm leaving. why didn't you just leave a message for me?"
"I need to talk with you in person." Norman dropped the telephone receiver on the desk and bounded out the door to the elevators. He tapped the call button eight or nine times, trying to make the elevator come faster. when it arrived, he got on and went up to the fifth floor. Once again, the elevator disgorged him into total darkness.
He wasn't cautious this time, but strode rapidly in the direction of Pierce's office. The Finance Department was deserted. Norman got to Pierce's door, knocked, and opened it. He went into the office without waiting to be invited. The halogen desk lamp wasn't on this time, and the place was tomb dark.
"Pierce," said Norman into the darkness, "is it all right if I turn on a light? I can't see a thing."
There was no answer.
Norman felt around the doorway until he found a light switch. He pushed it on. The overhead lights came on, but Norman found himself alone in the office. He walked over to Pierce's desk to pound his frustration out on it. But as he raised his hand, the motion caused a twinge in the swollen bruise he had started on his own desk.
He lowered his hand to his side and tried to understand what was happening. Pierce had run away. He wouldn't do that unless he was afraid of talking with Norman about Jacqueline. Norman decided it was time to bring in professional help.
Norman met the police officers at the front desk. After a little tiff with the security man (Norman realized he should have let him know he was calling the police), he took them up to Pierce's deserted office. There were two of them: a youngish woman who looked like a bark clerk and an older man who looked like the guy at the department store that they call out of the office to come approve your check.
The check-approving policeman was named Detective Riordan. He could have used some of the spray-on hair Norman had seen on television the other day. He had a lined but hearty-looking face. His stomach was just beginning to protrude a little over his belt. The Police Department apparently didn't have an employee fitness program. The bank clerk, introduced to him as Detective Juliana, was a dark-haired woman with the pale eyes of a character actress whose name Norman couldn't remember. He judged her to be in her late twenties. She didn't talk at all at first, but looked around Pierce's office while her partner asked Norman questions.
Riordan asked Norman for his name and address and his job title and responsibilities with the company. He wrote Norman's answers laboriously into a small notebook with a ballpoint pen that appeared to have a Police Department emblem on the pocket clip. Norman recognized the pen as the kind organizations give as gifts and incentives. He received glossy catalogs for that kind of stuff all the time.
"You say that you and your boss were with the dead woman on Friday night," said Riordan, "and that you saw him do something to her. what did he do?"
"I don't know exactly," said Norman. "He got right up close to her."
Detective Riordan wrote in his little book, taking a long time before finishing and asking his next question. "Maybe he was trying to help with her, what is it--" He paged back through his notebook briefly. "-her aneurysm."
"It looked like he was climbing on top of her or something. I heard her moan."
The younger officer, who was examining Pierce's Save the Wildlife letter opener, looked up from it and appeared to listen more closely.
"What do you mean from the corner of your eye? Didn't you say she was in the chair next to you?"
"Yes, but Pierce paralyzed me."
"You mean he, like, gave you drugs or something?" Detective Riordan held his pen poised over the notebook.
"No," said Norman, "nothing like that."
"What, exactly, did he do to you?" The police officer continued to hold his pen over his notebook, but he wasn't writing anything.
Detective Riordan appeared skeptical, and Norman was glad he wasn't trying to get his approval on a personal check.
"I don't know how he does it."
"Does he, like, gesture hypnotically or something?" Riordan closed the cover of his notebook unobtrusively and smiled at Norman.
Norman realized how ridiculous it sounded. "I admit I didn't see it very well," said Norman, "but I know something happened."
"Right next to you," said Riordan.
"Look, I know it sounds strange," said Norman. "But Pierce can look you in the eye and keep you from moving."
"How does this work? Do your joints lock?"
"It's hard to describe," said Norman. "It's not really alt that unpleasant. There's a kind of soothing sensation, and you lose the will to move."
Norman watched Detective Riordan's face and he saw there a vacancy he sometimes saw in employees when he explained the vesting process for the company's retirement plan. He realized he had lost him, and that Riordan was only present at this interview in person.
Detective Juliana spoke up. "What do you think happened?" Her voice was surprisingly deep and throaty.
"I don't know," said Norman.
The older officer looked at her, and for an instant, Norman thought he detected a small resentment at her intrusion into his interrogation.
"Do you think he assaulted her?" said the woman.
"I don't know," said Norman. "She moaned, but it didn't really sound like she was in pain."
"Do you think she was enjoying what he did to her?" said Riordan. He still wasn't making any notes.
Detective Juliana shot him a venomous look.
"I wouldn't call it enjoyment," said Norman. "More like a kind of release. Like a letting-go."
"You'll have to describe it better than that," said Riordan. "Do you want Detective Juliana here to fry to imitate it? Moan for the man, Detective Juliana."
Norman and Riordan both looked at Detective Juliana. She glared back at Riordan, and Norman was certain he'd never seen such hatred in a person's face. He realized the Detectives Riordan and Juliana were in the process of working out some interpersonal issues involved in their partnership. He thought it probably wasn't a good idea to lead them in a team-building exercise just then. He wanted to get the interview over with.
"Look," said Norman. "I realize now that I was mistaken about all of this. I've been under a great deal of strain lately. I think I've suffered a hallucination." It didn't matter whether or not it was true. It might get this over with.
Riordan studied him. "Are you sick or something?"
"I don't know," said Norman. "I'll call my doctor as soon as you leave."
Riordan stuffed the closed notebook into his pocket. "Are you going to be OK?"
"Yes." Norman took a step toward the telephone. "Look, I'm calling my doctor's office right now."
Riordan stepped toward the telephone with him. "Have your doctor look at that hand while you're at it."
Norman looked down at his swollen hand. "Yeah."
Riordan handed him a business card. "Ask your doctor to call me."
"You're part of an investigation now." Riordan shrugged, as if he thought the matter was a waste of his time but there was nothing he could do about it.
For the third time today, Norman felt frustration welling up in him, but he kept himself under control. "Is that necessary?"
"Probably not." Riordan turned to look for his partner, but she was already leaving. He started to follow her. "I'll be in touch."
Norman wondered what kind of conversation Riordan and Juliana were going to have back in their squad car. He stood awkwardly with the telephone receiver in his good hand, wondering whom he intended to call. He heard the bell signal the arrival of the elevator and then the sound of the door sliding open. He put the telephone receiver back on its hook and, with his swollen hand, tucked Riordan's card into his jacket pocket. Before he heard the elevator door slide shut, Detective Juliana spoke.
"Don't you ever-"
Her remark was cut off as the door closed.
Norman was left alone to try to understand what had happened and what he should do about it. He looked at his watch. It was seven o'clock already. He wondered if Gwen had made the kids' dinners or had ordered a pizza. He started toward the doorway and the light switch, and he heard the elevator chime again. He stopped and looked around, thinking one of the police officers had forgotten something. But he didn't see anything extra, and when he turned back toward the doorway, he saw two people in the reception area, heading toward him. It was Pierce, and Jacqueline was with him.
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